Thursday, August 14, 2008

UA - Ivano-Frankivsk, Yaremcha, Vorokhta

After several mornings of sleeping in, I learned the hard way that this train arrived not long after dawn. Svitlana’s voice said something along the lines of “We arrive in 15 minutes”. That got me out of bed & moving… that and the fact that the turned on the blazingly-bright white cabin light.

Arriving in Lviv, we initially planned to spend several hours exploring the city. However, when we learned a bus was leaving soon for Ivano-Frankivsk – one step closer to our day’s final destination in the Carpathian Mountains – we hopped on board and got situated for a 3-hr or so bus ride.

Once in Ivano-Frankivsk, we did a quick walking tour about town – with me leading the way. We paused at a fountain, located downtown, to sit in the shade & to bask in the air cooled by the water. We were soon presented with a show, as a man who was clearly not-all-there began enjoying the water. He took off his shirt and would cup his hands to splash water over his body and face. The way he would get splash himself was the best part: he would wave his hands about in the water to get some good turbulence built up – almost like revving an engine – and then VROOM he’d go into splash mode. He’d soak himself, soak the ground, dampen those in the splash zone, and generate a good mist for everyone a bit further. The look on his face after he was done was priceless – this splashing appeared to be almost orgasmic for the man. After a break of several seconds, he’d return to the same spot and do it again. It was a fun show, capable of giving Shamu a good run.

I led the way back toward the train station, but each time one of the girls would hop in front and lead off to some other attraction. I went to go east; they’d go north. I went to go south; then they’d go east. Each time I’d relent and let them go their way, assuming they had a destination. When I finally confirmed that they wanted to go to the train station, I took full control and led the way.

As we were undoing all the wrong moves they had made, we repeated many of the same paths we were just on minutes ago – prompting Svitlana to frequently ask for directions. Maybe it’s not an issue here, but in America: when you have a guide (especially a guy), it is extremely rude to ask for directions. I just laughed inside each time the people would point us in the very direction I was already going. The girls were thoroughly impressed when we arrived at the train station – not one wrong move made along the way. I don’t get lost.

We boarded a minibus to Yaremcha, which dropped us off about an hour or two later at what most certainly did not feel like a town. Yaremcha is rather sparsely populated along the length of the main road, which we continued to walk along. The town is reportedly best known for two things: waterfalls and souvenirs. How a town can be known for souvenirs: I’m not quite sure. Are there souvenirs that honor the art of souvenir-making? Like little souvenirs depicting souvenirs.

After about 10 minutes of walking, we came up to one of Yaremcha’s main attractions: a whole market of nothing but souvenir stalls. I was quite confused by this, as it really seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. I was leased to soon learn that they were all centered around the other main attraction: the waterfalls. The waterfalls really weren’t anything spectacular – certainly not Niagara; really just some rocks that the water was tumbling down. A bridge was built above the water and on both sides, large rocks permitted people to rest their feet in the stream or to take a swim.

Our feet were relieved by a dip in the water, which combined with photo ops lasted about 20 minutes or so. We spent another 20 minutes, approximately, staring at the souvenir stalls. Anastasia asked why I appeared to have so little interest in souvenirs. Basically, it’s because these souvenirs were not much different from any other souvenirs: they could be found anywhere, except here they had words like “Yaremcha” and “Ukraine”, albeit written in Cyrillic.

Now I will say that some of the stalls had more traditional Hutsul folk clothing. This clothing was very neat and pretty, except what use would I have for female garments; and how often would I seriously wear any male garments? Hey I’m all for wearing folk clothing, but I only wear the clothing of my own folk. Give me something traditional to my own heritage, and I’m all for it. This entire trip I’ve been pining for my kilt, and seeing these clothes only furthered my consternation that I chose to leave it in America.

We caught a marshrutka to Vorokhta, located a bit further down the main road – further into the Carpathians. This was one cramped van: I barely made it on & found myself standing in the stairwell. My footing was horrible, so I found myself getting a good workout along every curve, as my arms had to bear all the forces of my body and backpack mass as it was accelerated around the curves. The leftward curves were the worst, as I really did not want to risk putting any weight at all on the van’s door. As it was the only door, each stop meant we had to shuffle about; and the first two stops I exited completely only to hop back on & close the door as the van had already begun moving away. Eventually the driver rather angrily directed me to sit down on the console beside the driver’s seat, where I spent the rest of the ride.

Our drop-off point felt like some tiny tiny town, and that’s exactly what it was. Just as Yaremcha surprised me, Vorokhta was another town devoid of Soviet skyscrapers. I had wondered if such places even existed. I’d say this town could be transplanted right into the Appalachians without it seeming at all out-of-place; apart from the presence of a functioning train station and a lot of mongrel dogs. The dogs were quite kind as well as intelligent – they even stayed on sidewalks or would yield to cars when crossing the street.

The first task was to acquire lodging. The only accommodation in my Lonely Planet had a fax number but no phone number. While I’m sure it would have been easy to find the address (and surely the taxi drivers across the street could direct us the right way), we instead opted to walked toward the train station and check for rooms there.

In Ukraine (indeed, I think it’s common throughout the former Eastern Bloc), many train stations have a couple rooms for rent. These rooms came at an amazing price – I believe 35 hryvna each. That’s like $7 per person: even the cheapest hostels located in some community college dormitories would be hard-pressed to rival that price. The room seemed perfect: three single beds in the room and a sink. The bathroom was shared, but I’ve gone through most of Europe with shared bathrooms and that didn’t bother me in the least. The room even had a small black and white TV. Sure it relied on rabbit ears, but it got a couple channels – which is a couple more than I would have expected way out here.

After unloading our gear, I was eager to explore the town before the sun set behind the mountains. We went back toward the main road and continued past it, down toward the stream. We crossed over the bridge and wrapped around an unpaved roadway leading passed various dacha and farms. Coming upon a opening in the fence and a worn footpath leading upward, we followed it up to the top of a hill and got a great view over the town. I was excited: memories of Switzerland came flooding back – the nature; the scenery; the mountains!

We came back down as the sun was setting and grabbed some food at a local restaurant. Returning to our rooms, it soon became apparent why the rent was so low. Firstly, there were a couple holes in the floor. Not holes like you can stare into and try to deliver messages to China; but just cracked wood in the hardwood floor; exposing the foundation inches below. Some of these holes were covered beneath the rugs, making it feel like a funhouse as I walked about. I think I even started a new hole when I stepped on what felt like sturdy floor beneath the rug, but gave way when I shifted my weight. As I was brushing my teeth at the time, I got a nice white minty smear across the side of my face.

Holes in the floor is one thing – they really didn’t bother me at all. The bathroom was a whole new ballpark. The girls took showers earlier, back when we first dropped off our backpacks. Some time had passed for the other tenants to use the bathroom. So it had been thoroughly used by the time I arrived. I opened the door and found the floor to be like a kiddie pool: about an inch of water, albeit thankfully not disturbingly warm. Fortunately, I was wearing my flip-flops; but still: I found myself dumbfounded at how some people don’t dry themselves off while they’re in the shower stall.

As there was no toilet paper, I held off doing something I had been intending to do. Using the toilet to fulfill the other, more frequent, of functions: I soon came to realize that there was no flusher. There was also no lid on top of the tank. Flushing was accomplished by pulling a little hook that had been attached to the plunger within the tank. Fair enough: I’ve been to houses in PA which have Rube Goldberg toilets and a deficient supply of TP.

I entered into the shower stall and went to close the doors behind me. The stall was in the corner and had curved plastic doors, which when closed would form an arc around you. The one door gave me some trouble, and I soon realized that it wasn’t even on the track anymore: I was holding it completely upright with my hands. OK, so I picked it up and placed it to its “closed” position. The next door stayed on the tracks, but I still had to wiggle it about to get it into place. Its magnetic edge sensed its buddy when it got close, forming a good seal.

Shower doors in place, I then spotted that the one side panel had a nice hole in it. However, it wasn’t necessarily a gaping hole – not the kind of hole that could explain the sheet of water on the floor. It was just big enough that maybe a small puddle would form within that vicinity; but certainly no flooding of Biblical proportions.

I took my shower the usual way. There was a thingy higher up where I could put the shower nozzle, since hand-held nozzles are more a European novelty than they are American. The temperature was fine, but the pressure was horrid. This whole time I had been spoiled by great pressure – Anastasia’s apartment being particularly nice. Now I was stuck with water just sort of dribbling out, unless I held the nozzle at about waist high & at a certain angle: then the pressure was pretty good. No deal. I had short hair, so I didn’t have to worry about that “humid day” sort of look that comes along with low pressure showers.

The low pressure further reinforced how the hole in the panels was not the likely culprit behind the water on the floor. I was trying to give people the benefit of the doubt, but more and more it seemed like people were just making a mess. So I opened it up & dried myself within the stall – practicing what I preach.

Next was the sink to shave and brush my teeth. I had shaved off my goatee two shaves ago (so I guess that’s about 4 days ago), and the girls reacted with uniform support. This includes feedback from four girls. Back in America, whenever I shave off the goatee: I often receive similar input from my female co-workers and friends to keep it off. Each time it comes back. Why? I don’t know: men and their facial hair.

This prompted a discussion back when I first shaved it off: men just simply like their facial hair. It’s not that we necessarily think women like it; it’s that we like it. Similarly, men often tout that they prefer women without makeup; but yet women insist on covering themselves with it. At the time, this was particularly relevant because I had been ranting about how Russian girls wear far too much makeup. Now I’ll concede that makeup can be used to cover up some minor things here and there; or for blondes: it helps to make their eyelashes visible; but generally many men just aren’t interested in a woman that’s covered in paint. Er, unless that’s the whole focus of the evening – in the name of art, of course.

So I shaved off my stubble as well as the hint of goatee when I shaved around it 2 days prior. Next up: brush my teeth. Brush brush brush… you know how it’s done. Then just as I reached to turn off the water, I heard a sound not unlike that of a small creek. The sound of a little bit of water dribbling down onto some more water below. That’s when I discovered the culprit: Noah’s sink.

I checked out the plumbing just behind the free-standing sink and noted that one of the pipes had separated from the wall a bit. I reached to reconnect it, and suddenly the entire elbow joint came loose; and all the water stored within the elbow’s tank emptied onto the floor. I tried to reconnect it all together, but found that to get a good fit: one of the pipes was about a good 2 inches too short. No wonder it kept falling apart on people: the overlap between the pipes was so small that I can barely think of a measurement to describe how small it was.

Realizing that fixing it required more supplies than I had available, I decided to introduce Lennon to Noah and let it be. I went to the door, which I had to lock by key – it didn’t even shut unless you locked it. I turned the key and… nothing. I turned and turned and turned. I turned the other way and turned some more. Beads of sweat formed on my head and I thought of Ralph’s narrating of his thoughts from A Christmas Story. Actually, I often do narrate my own thoughts, but now my voice was even the same as the voice of Jean Shepherd.

“No way out,” I thought. I thought up banging on the door for aid, but knew that there was nothing anyone else could do: the key was on my side. They’d have to call the fire department. They’d have to take an axe to the door. By then, I’d have long since passed of starvation: I’d be little more than a pile of bones sitting in a pool of water. I was trapped… trapped in the bathroom for ever.

Then I found the trick: just push on the key as you turned it. It wouldn’t catch the first time, but it’d catch the second time. This worked like a charm each and every time I’d have to escape from the bathroom. Another prestigious victory for the Bossi family. I can see this tale being recited around campfires: the great epic of Bossi defeating the bathroom door.

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